So I went to Riyadh for the first time in almost 20 years living in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is the capital city, but it does not seem to be an interesting place to go for most Jeddah residents, as Jeddah is a fun place to hang out where you will find many sources of entertainment here… (compared to other cities in the Kingdom) and it’s indeed the Bride of the Red Sea. Even the Saudis living in other cities see Jeddah as ‘fun’. During long summer holiday (usually 3 months, but this year they made it 4 months to be combined with Ramadhan), many people across the Kingdom — those who cannot afford travelling abroad — as well as from other Gulf countries come to Jeddah for a vacation. The famous Corniche Road with its beautiful King Fahd Fountain, the almost-Orchard-Road-like shopping street called Tahlia St, as well as most huge malls located in Jeddah are packed with people, especially during the weekends. Not to mention that since Prince Khalid Al-Faisal became the governor of Makkah Region (including Jeddah), he is slowly turning Jeddah into a modern city promoting it with a slogan Jeddah Ghair (meaning Jeddah is Different) to attract more tourists and every weekends at 12am there are fireworks by the beach in an elite district in front of Hilton Hotel. It was just beautiful; I’m not a big fan of fireworks and to be honest, when I lived in Brisbane, never once in my life I attended the Riverfestival where we could see fireworks by the Brisbane River. But seeing these beautiful fireworks in Jeddah is definitely priceless. I have never seen such things before in Saudi Arabia, not the kind of fireworks celebration planned by the government. Definitely not. And it’s NOT the kind of cheap fireworks you would see because the range of colours and the shapes resembling the dates trees are just too beautiful to see. But wait… why can’t I stop?? Shouldn’t I talking about Riyadh instead of Jeddah?? 😛
Ok, let’s go back to Riyadh…
So for all these years, my impression of Riyadh had always been from TV and photographs. When high-rise buildings in Jeddah are nowhere to be found (although they’re starting to build them nowadays), Riyadh is already filled with unique high-rise buildings — two of which are the country’s highest structure called Kingdom Centre and the cone-like Al Faisaliyah. So I quickly made a conclusion that Riyadh is more metropolitan and CBD-like than Jeddah, more “rich” and wealthy (after all most Saudi Royals live there), has more massive houses and palaces, and has huge malls. Since it’s the capital city of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh would probably be more structurally organised and much cleaner (as a friend of mine told me) than Jeddah.
I arrived in Riyadh at King Khaled Airport on Saturday afternoon with my dad and mom. The airport has such well-designed and unique architecture. It is much bigger and has more facilities than Jeddah’s low rated airport. Anyway, since my purpose of going to Riyadh was to process my student visa, we stayed near the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ), a small district which housed all of the foreign embassies as well as international organisations in Riyadh. Our accommodation was located only 10 minutes from where the sophisticated Kingdom Centre (and all other high rise buildings) stands. We were surprised to find out that there were only very few residential houses near our accommodation. My house in Jeddah is located at the very end of the city, near the highway to Mekkah, but you can find A LOT of houses over there. And here we were in Riyadh only 10 minutes away from the city centre and we found only a few houses! Maybe because the government prohibits anyone from building a residential complex near the DQ for security purposes, but who knows!
Eagerly wanting to know how the heart of the city looked like, we went to the Olaya district where we saw the magnificent Kingdom Centre and finally made a stop at Al Faisaliyah Mall. We arrived there just after the call (Adzan) for Isya prayer concluded and not so surprisingly we were “welcomed” by a Muttawa and his bodyguards (i.e. local police) urging men to pray and telling women who didn’t wear “proper” abaya and headscarf to do what he asked them to do. I never had a pleasant experience with the Muttawas, so seeing them in the middle of the mall was an awful thing to start my Riyadh adventure. One thing I remembered about Riyadh even before I stepped my foot on it was that Riyadh is no way like Jeddah — in terms of freedom. The city is known to be much stricter with many Muttawas roam the streets and buildings of Riyadh. In Jeddah, the place that is known to be Muttawa-free is Tahlia St and the private resort beaches along Obhur; and in most malls, you can barely see Muttawas. But in Riyadh, there is no single exception. Whether it’s a mall full of luxury shops or a market somewhere, there is no guarantee that Muttawa would not come to those places. Even Starbucks received a media attention recently when a businesswoman from Jeddah was arrested by Muttawa when she was having a meeting with a male colleague at Riyadh’s Starbucks. Years ago, somebody told me that women in Riyadh must be fully veiled with their face covered whenever they go out, including foreigners. But nowadays that rule seems to fade.
Yes, the rule seems to fade, but the culture does not. For the first time of my life, I felt SO uneasy to walk in the mall with my face uncovered. This time, not because men looking at me in a disturbing way coz I always tried to not look at them in the eye when walking in the public places; but because THE WOMEN looked at me as if it is a crime for me NOT to cover my face. Of course, most likely they would not think that way, but I just had these negative thinking in my head every time I looked at them in the eye. It turned out that I was not the only one who thought that way. My mom told me that women here looked at us more disturbingly — unlike in Jeddah, Saudi women just don’t give a damn on us. At first, I thought I was too paranoid, but then when I arrived in Jeddah after an hour flight from Riyadh, a Filipino lady who had been wearing her headscarf in Riyadh took her headscarf off when she got out of the plane in Jeddah. At last, she found a freedom ;).
My uneasy feeling leads me to find rather interesting discoveries. Of course, I was in Riyadh for only one night, and I have only been to one mall and its airport, but in those two places I found out that most women in Riyadh were fully veiled from head to toe. Almost all of them wore a very loose abaya (not the kind of skinny abaya you would find most Saudi women in Jeddah are wearing). And many of them still wear black gloves. I also saw very few non-Saudi Arabs (e.g. Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians), let alone Asians. Lebanese women are known to wear stylish abayas with their hair uncovered, but I saw none of them when I was in Riyadh. Jeddah is indeed a multicultural city and sometimes I feel that Jeddah has more foreigners than Saudis. And I think this is the reason why Riyadh is more conservative than Jeddah (I even found Riyadh to be more conservative than Madinah and Makkah). Unlike Riyadh, Jeddah’s culture has received many foreign influences, thus many norms are more relaxed.
And the weather! Boy, the weather in Riyadh was just not like anything I had experienced before. A few days before my departures to Riyadh, one of local radio stations reported that in reality, Riyadh’s weather exceeds 58°C!! (It was quite a controversy because the government reported it was only 40°C when in reality it’s much more than that. Please note that construction workers are prohibited from working when the weather exceeds 50°C). The only thing that I didn’t look forward to this city is definitely the weather. It’s much hotter than Jeddah. When I first stepped out of the airport, I could already feel the heat. And surprisingly, the weather at night was no difference than during the day. It was just SOOOO HOT! It was so hot that it felt like my skin was burning!!! And that was at NIGHT! So I decided to half covered my face with my headscarf. At around 11.30 pm, I went to the bathroom to wash my face and surprisingly the water was HOT too! It was like the water had just been boiled! And NO, I didn’t turn on the water heater. When I arrived in Jeddah and stepped out of the plane (to be transported to a domestic terminal by bus), I was so relieved to be able to feel Jeddah’s wind once again! After I experienced this, I swear I would never complain about how hot the weather in Jeddah is!!! Because no matter how hot it is, Jeddah’s weather is still much better than that of Riyadh’s!
Finally, on Sunday morning, I went to the Diplomatic Quarter to go to the embassy where somebody would be waiting for me for a visa appointment. The DQ was such a huge place heavily guarded by the Saudi army. This was a place where all foreign embassies, international organisations, as well as some government offices were located in Riyadh. It was much like a mini town, as it had its own banks, sports facilities, grocery stores, and residential complex for diplomats. The design of the building structures was so diverse, yet there were some elements of the local architectural design being retained. It was such a beautiful complex. We saw and passed our Indonesian embassy, but we didn’t stop by :D.
It turned out that it only took less than 15 minutes to do my stuff in the embassy. So at 11.30am, my family and I decided to go straight to the airport hoping that we could catch an earlier flight — so no need to pay for an extra night at our accommodation. Flights from Riyadh to Jeddah (and vice versa) are always busy, so my dad could only get a 12 am flight booked. For other flights, he put us on a waiting list. So we waited an hour after hour to get a seat, but none were available. There were just too many people on the waiting list, unfortunately. Then at 9.30 at night, my dad decided to get a boarding pass for our 12-am flight, but it turned out that he booked on THE WRONG DATE!!! Instead of booking on the 27th of July, he booked a ticket on the 27th of AUGUST!!! Hahaha. That was funny! Fortunately for us… another airline suddenly brought an extra charter plane, so finally, after 10 hours of waiting in the airport, we could secure our seats! LOL! 😀 And that was basically the end of my short Riyadh trip :).
Last but not least… I would like to point out that although I’ve only stayed in Riyadh for less than 48 hours and seen few places there, I come to a nice simple conclusion that Jeddah is the most beautiful city and the best place to live in the whole Kingdom of Saudi Arabia! 🙂